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Salt and Light

When I was fourteen years old, I became the proud owner of a yellow leisure suit. I already considered myself to be a pretty snappy dresser, but the leisure suit reinforced my fashion sense and definitely set me apart from my denim-wearing peers. I proudly wore the suit to high school one morning and started the day with art class. We were working with pen and ink, and I set the little bottle of black ink too close to the edge of my desk. I made a wrong move, and the open bottle landed in my lap. A large black stain resulted, and the art teacher sent me off to the locker room to soak the pants in water. As if that would help! I remember walking back to art class with wet pants, still covered with black ink. My mother had to bring a change of clothes to school, and then she worked her magic on the yellow pants. She took salt and carefully rubbed it into the ink stain. She repeated the process over and over again until the stain had faded considerably. It didn’t disappear entirely, and I never wore the leisure suit again, but I learned that salt had powers beyond making popcorn taste better. And I soon learned that leisure suits were no longer a fashion statement anyway. It’s a good thing the salt didn’t work too well.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”

Salt flavors food, melts ice, treats sore throats, and changes the boiling point of water. The human body needs sodium and chloride. Since the body cannot manufacture it, we consume it in food, often more than we need. For Jesus and those who listened to his words in the Sermon on the Mount, a massive source of salt lay just to the south. Jesus spoke on a hillside by the Sea of Galilee. The fresh water below him fed into the Jordan River and then flowed to the Dead Sea where it became intensely salty due to the minerals that line the floor and the shore of the sea. If you ever have an opportunity to go there, do not miss floating in the water. While the Atlantic Ocean contains 3% salt, sodium chloride in the Dead Sea comprises 33%. It’s impossible to sink there. As the water has receded in recent years, salt crystals remain on the rocks, making it difficult to enter the water without cutting your feet. Be sure to bring your flip flops.

Salt makes a difference wherever it is or however we use it. In the ancient world, it was used to preserve food, to bless babies, to seal promises, and it was even used as currency. “Salt” is thus related to the word “salary.”

Jesus also said, “You are the light of the world.”

It’s interesting, I think, that Jesus also said of himself, “I am the light of the world.” Jesus is the light. We are the light. Together we cast enough light to make a difference wherever there is darkness.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. equated violence with darkness and he equated love with light. He wrote, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Those who escaped the violence of slavery sang about “following the drinking gourd.” Hollowed out gourds were used to dip water, but the folk song referred to the big dipper and the brightness of the north start pointing toward freedom. The depiction by King of a dark night with no stars reminds me that we need more points of light if any of us are going to find our way to a better future. You are the light of the world.

This week is the start of African American History month. The White House ceremony and the references to Frederick Douglas were a reminder of why we even have such a month. This week I was at a Rocky Mountain Conference church vitality seminary with Rev. John Dorhauer, president of the United Church of Christ. His work in the area of white privilege is important and highlights how even African American History Month can be viewed and skewed through the lens of being white. When our vice president used the occasion to lift up Abraham Lincoln rather than African Americans themselves, it illustrated how black history can be seen as only important or even worth mentioning when it is in relation to those who are white. How do we shine light on our collective failure to value all persons equally?

During this past week, the Boy Scouts of America announced that transgender boys were welcome to participate fully in programs by simply making it clear that they identify as male. That happened because an eight year old transgender boy in New Jersey, who had participated in the Scouts, was kicked out after some parents complained. Many people put pressure on the Boy Scouts to address this injustice. In recent years, the Scouts have changed their policies in order to welcome openly gay members and leaders. Gender identity had not yet been addressed. The voices of those who oppose ignorance and fear made a difference. Kind of like salt irritating a wound until someone finally acted to take care of the harm being inflicted. Or like light that shined truth on an area of misunderstanding and misinformation until it was obvious what needed to be done. That’s what salt and light can do.

Yesterday afternoon, Leroy and I attended a rally in Longmont. It was a microcosm of rallies and protests held throughout the nation on Saturday. About sixty folks stood along the sidewalk, holding signs about immigration and health care and democracy and the environment. People passing by beeped their horns and waved or flashed peace signs or used fewer finger to express their opinion. One man drove his truck up onto the sidewalk while shouting obscenities. That was a scary moment, but what struck me most were the grins and the joy evident on the faces of many who drove by. I think many of us need to be reassured that we are not alone as we face what look to be difficult days in the future. When we participate in actions for justice, we are hopefully achieving the hoped-for result that will change hearts and society. In the meantime, though, we are shining our light and giving light to those who need it while we wait.

Following the words of Jesus on staying salty and not hiding our light under a bushel, He delivered a short discourse on the value of the Hebrew law as found in the Torah. He told his listeners that he did not come to replace or destroy the law or the prophets who followed, but instead to fulfill them. He said that every letter and every stroke of a letter in every law is important. It would be easy to look at Jesus’ words here and conclude that he is concerned about the minutia that the Pharisee busied themselves with. But if we understand that the law was ultimately concerned with justice and the values representing God’s realm as revealed by Jesus, then we can see how Jesus fulfilled the law through his teaching and his example.

You are the salt of the earth. The poem by Kamand Kojouri is a love story about the cloud and the sea. The cloud emerged from the sea as the sun beat upon it. The salt in the sea became tears as the sea wept. The cloud was so grieved its separation from the sea that it wept, also, and its rain united it once again with its source. When we weep at the separation that divides people from one another and from creation itself, our tears make us the salt of the earth. The unity that binds us to all people of all nationalities and all faiths, and our oneness with the earth is a love story that we are still writing.

You are the light of the world. During years of political upheaval in Germany prior to World War II, Berlin pastor Martin Niemoller wrote a sermon shortly before he was arrested and imprisoned. He asked the question, “What are we worrying about? When I read out the names of church members missing or arrested, did we not think: ‘Will this wind, this storm that is going through the world just now, not blow out the Gospel candle? We must therefore take the message in out of the storm and keep it safe.’ It is during these days that I have realized, that I have understood, what the Lord Jesus Christ means when He says: ‘Do not take up the bushel! I have not lit the candle for you to put it under the bushel, in order to protect it from the wind. Away with the bushel! The light should be placed upon a candlestick! We are not to worry whether the light is extinguished or not; that is God’s concern: we are only to see that the light is not hidden away – ‘Let your light shine before all!’”

Would the world be less bright if you were not here? Would it be without taste if you were not here to sprinkle salt?

The New Yorker magazine has a provocative cover this week of the Statue of Liberty. The torch has always been a light for our world and a symbol of hope, lifted above the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” On the cover of the magazine, the torch is extinguished and a wisp of smoke curls upward.

No one can extinguish your light as long as it burns within you. Keep shining so that the whole world will believe in the ultimate triumph of justice. Amen.

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